$600

Originally published on The Quick and the Ed.

Last February, I told my geometry class about their upcoming state test.  I chose my words carefully, trying to build enthusiasm for several weeks of preparation.  I explained my new Saturday tutorial program and daily review problems.  Luisa interrupted me.

“The TAKS test doesn’t even matter this year.”

The rest of the class chattered in agreement.  The TAKS test would matter next year, when they were in eleventh grade.  That test would determine if they graduated.  But the tenth grade test wouldn’t even determined if they passed geometry. 

We spent weeks preparing for TAKS.  But after the test, Luisa told me she hadn’t really tried.  Other students said they started guessing half way through.  It didn’t matter, not to them.  But it mattered a great deal to their school and their teacher.  We would be judged by their scores.

I thought of Luisa when I heard about New York’s pilot program to pay students for achievement.  Among other incentives, the program would pay high school students $600 for passing standardized tests.  The idea is to align their short term interests with their long term interests, while alleviating poverty and making test data more meaningful.  I’m not convinced.

Maybe $600 could make Luisa care, but I think she wanted to pass all along.  We all have a natural desire for knowledge and success.  Luisa was no exception.  I saw it in her eyes when she learned how to find the volume of a cylinder.  But she had failed TAKS four times and expected to fail again.  Financial incentives only motivate if we believe we can achieve them.  I have great financial incentive to play in the NFL, but I’m not practicing my spiral. 

Maybe $600 could make Luisa care, but I could have made her care too.  I could have convinced her success was possible, inspired her to work harder.  I could have shown her the value of striving for excellence, even against long odds.  I think the fact that we’re offering $600 means we didn’t do our jobs.

Maybe $600 could have made Luisa care, but at what cost?  (Besides $600, of course.)  What would we teach her about the purpose of education?  How would we change the way she sees school?

As Edwize somewhat sarcastically says, it’s a very cool experiment.  I’m  really curious, but I’m even more wary. 

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